DANIEL MASON is a doctor and author of The Piano Tuner, A Far Country, The Winter Soldier, and A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Good Reading caught up with Daniel to talk about his latest novel, North Woods.
ABOUT THE BOOK
A young Puritan couple on the run. An English soldier with a fantastic vision. Inseparable twin sisters. A lovelorn painter and a lusty beetle. A desperate mother and her haunted son. A ruthless con man and a stalking panther. Buried secrets. Madness, dreams and hope.
All are connected. The dark, raucous, beautiful past is very much alive.
Exhilarating, daring and playful, North Woods will change the way you see the world.
Q&A WITH DANIEL MASON
How did the idea for North Woods develop?
My family spent part of the pandemic with relatives in rural New York. Walking around the forest, I began to think about the histories that lay behind the homes and woods around me. I became fascinated with the ecological concept of succession – how different ecosystems develop from each other and change over time – and began to imagine writing a work of fiction in which the past continues to haunt (in many ways) the present.
What aspects of your own life and family have entered into or inspired the characters and happenings in North Woods?
Eventually I returned to New England on a fellowship to write over the academic year. Almost immediately, the book began to incorporate the seasons as they changed around me … this wasn’t deliberate at first, but soon I couldn’t ignore it and decided to let it structure my writing: I would write the September chapters in September, the October chapters in October, etc. So while I am writing about the world from the past, the natural world around me very much made its way into the pages.
North Woods follows a host of characters across the centuries. Was it challenging to cover such different times in the one novel?
Yes, and no – it was fun to inhabit these different worlds, like a kind of time travel, and I think that the sense of novelty kept things exciting.
What was involved in your research process for this novel?
Lots of walking in the woods! From the beginning, I very much wanted to write a book in which the natural world – animals, plants, insects – plays a role as a protagonist, on par with my human protagonists. So while I had to do library research for lots of the book (into apple orchards, or colonial captivity narratives, or true crime pulps), it was the walks in the woods that made this very different from my other projects. Almost every day I would go out for hours, watching, walking with my dog or alone, trying to get a better understanding of the plants and animals that would make their way into the novel.
The novel is set in New England, Massachusetts – do you have a personal connection to the place?
I’ve lived here at various stages throughout my life. But I never really looked closely at either the human or natural history until I came here to write. North Woods really changed my relationship to this part of the world.
Your novel looks at the role of memory in history. What compelled you to explore this in your story?
I’m fascinated by how much of our present lives is influenced by the past. This can be both a tangible, material influence (things left behind that take new meanings), or in memory. It is constantly astonishing to think of the complexity of worlds each person carries within themselves.
How did the process of writing this book compare to your last book A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth?
A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth is a group of stories, in different voices, held together by a common theme of people in a kind of crisis. Though North Woods also has different characters and different voices, they are all connected. I didn’t think about these kinds of connections when writing the stories in my collection (though themes emerged.)
Have you listened to, read or watched anything recently that you found inspiring?
Lots! Given that I am talking to you in Australia, it feels fit to mention that Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang was a book which changed me as a writer and reader, suggesting the joys of ventriloquism and exploration in form. I read it long ago, but still enjoy opening its pages. I just finished 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea for the first time (my kids beat me to it), and loved the sheer indulgence it takes in adventure.